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SUNBURNT TERRACE: Subroto final, better than any ISL game, shows why football can grow

THE DURAND CUP is dead, too. The last standing major Indian cup tournament, the third oldest football tournament of the world has been shut down. Now the football lovers of the country can put all their attention on one ISL game every night, without getting distracted by any professional football running in parallel. 

In the middle of the monotonous daily routine of the ISL, the Subroto Cup rather sneaked up on us. Few took notice at first. But the grand finale of the U-17 category, held on a Friday afternoon at Delhi's Ambedkar Stadium, earned a lot of eyeballs on TV thanks to the presence of football legend Pele. 

But those who tuned in for Pele stayed for the game of football that took just about everyone by surprise. Played between AIFF U-17 academy (playing as AIFF FC) and Little Angels Paradise Secondary School from Manipur in the atmospheric old arena, the match was a fast paced, action-packed affair from the get go. It was clear to see that both sets of boys were giving it their best, but what stood out was the level of accuracy in the game. There were few missed passes, a lot of one-touch play and end-to-end action almost throughout the game. 

And none of the teams gave up until the very end. The AIFF boys did not bog down after the Little Angels took the lead early on, and the Little Angels did not give up on the game even after a brilliant display from the likes of Bodo, Jaya and Rahul Yadav helped AIFF FC make a strong comeback and go 4-1 up. Each of the 5 goals was high quality.

As a football match it easily beat any ISL and most I-League matches in terms of quality and intensity. And the most surprising part was that one of the teams participating in this match represented a school.

Days after this, Manipur won the Junior National Football Championship for Girls, dominating Odisha in the final in another goalfest.

These accomplishments by teams from Manipur are not isolated. They highlight a very strong football development programme underway in the state, organized by local stakeholders, one that has nothing to do with PR-friendly short-bust photo op camps called "grassroot festivals" but with sustained hard work running season after season from dedicated coaches and administrators who take football seriously.

Something similar is happening in Mizoram, too. The local clubs with their limited resources had built up well-functioning academies, backed up by schools with strong emphasis on sporting curriculums. After years of work they got their rewards when Mizoram won the Santosh Trophy, followed by Aizawl FC's qualification for the I-League. The Mizoram Premier League, the only other regularly televised (albeit locally) football competition that goes on during ISL, is now more popular than ever. The local clubs' shirt sales will put many ISL teams to shame.

The reason I'm talking about all this is to point out that it can be done. It is possible, with limited resources, to build a football culture that can engender interest in fans and work towards pushing the boundaries in terms of quality of the players. 

The North-East has always remained somewhat detached from the mainstream (mainland?) media due to socio-political reasons. One of the side effects of that is achievements like this are not highlighted as an example for the rest of the country. If a school team from Manipur can go toe-to-toe like that with the AIFF U-17 Academy which houses the best players in the country in that age group, is it not worth trying to look into what they have done right, instead of waiting for the ISL teams to pay an existing grassroot organization in order to have their names attached to their programme and take the credit? Shouldn't we take a clue from the fact that so many key players in major top division clubs are from Mizoram and Manipur?

But this idea won't appeal to the powers that be, because it offers no immediate results. States like Meghalaya, Manipur and Mizoram have strong football development infrastructures in place because sports are not looked down upon by the public and the schools. This provides players with a very early introduction to the basics of the game and kick-starts their development way earlier than most other places in the country. And having local clubs that operate full-season with multiple junior teams in their academies pushes them to reach full potential as a player. The process is mult-faceted, thorough and long-term; simply put, the very anti-thesis of ISL.

All the fans can do is hope that with time the quality will come through. Just like it did in the Subroto Cup final. Football as a sport is growing; maybe it will inspire other schools and states to catch up. We are already seeing potential stakeholders crop up in different parts of the country who are playing the long term game. Fateh Hyderabad FC, who just entered the 2nd Division League, are a good example.

But the process can be considerably sped up if AIFF and the state governments/football bodies took active interest in pushing the sport's development. Imagine if we had a hundred schools that trained their players as well as Little Angels Paradise School. The impact it will have on the overall quality of football in India when these kids turn professional will be massive.

But why it hasn't been done, or rather, won't be done, is a different debate altogether.

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